Friday, May 31, 2024

HEMA: The Correct Way To Spar With Swords

Coming from a different martial arts background that also included sword work I was recently asked how I would approach sparring with the sword if I was practicing HEMA- Historical European Martial Arts.

What is the correct way to spar in HEMA?

I would incorporate my (our) approach to sparring or randori (shiai) in the Japanese martial arts, which when combined with the awesome dynamics and enthusiasm of HEMA has the possibility to leverage some interesting results.

First question before we can framework that possibility is to ask what the point of sparring with the sword really is. The idea of pressure testing what is in the manuals seems to be recently very popular, but is that the reason to have sparring be a part of the class? I’m sure the goal is to develop a proficiency with the sword and many clubs use this pressure-testing-sparring creation as a tool. But is it the best tool? The best use of class time?

What if we approached sparring in HEMA as a transmission of sorts- isshi soden, one to one as in the Japanese martial arts.

Maybe some clubs are already doing this and are just silent about it, seeing if those who are able to pick up on the transmission are able to pick up on it? Maybe there is a HEMA equivalent of doing this compared to those other famous Japanese sword arts?

The idea of going back and forth trying to score hits, or trying to make a technique work seems counter-productive in that two students are trying to force something to happen. Turning the training into a hit for hit or contest can quickly get out of hand and go against catching the feeling.


What about approaching it in this way?

Three sets or methods of sword sparring, with the idea of creating opportunities for the skill of each student to not only grow, but see if they can catch the feeling of what is happening in the moment. Taking the academic approach to instruction, and training/cultivating in something beyond.

First set has each student set and allowed to do one attack only- one cut only, and when both students have cut, the drill gets reset. The feeling is to pull out of each student the ability to commit in the moment, to take that cut and see that cut (or thrust) entirely through, cultivating correct warrior mindset. No tapping back and forth, no tapping each other’s sword or weak cuts- use correct body postures (kamae), control the distance, see the opening, and take it. This type of sparring develops a commitment to action.

Second set has one student being the attacker and one student being the defender for a set period of time, after which the attacker and defender roles are reversed. The student taking the feeling of the attacker (teki) is just that- they are able to do as many attacks as they want. As many cuts and thrusts as they want…

…while the defender for this set can only do just that: defend. No counter, no riposte, no attacks.


They can block (if your sward art has this, why are you blocking and not using footwork to avoid), avoid the attack using body postures, and use evasions not to get hit.

Anything but attacking or countering with the sword.

The transmission, the feeling here is being under pressure and only using the body (taijutsu) to avoid, evade, and counter through changing body movement (taihenjutsu).

How long can you evade?

Now, this feeling-lesson is inherently unfair to the defender, as in no matter how good they are, with the ability to counter removed, and not being able to attack, eventually they will get hit and over-run, and that is the moment to pull back and switch sides.

The final set of sword transmission is between the teacher and student, or the coach and participants, and if the club is big enough perhaps between the senior (in skill) students and the junior (in skill) students.

Both partners are able to attack and defend at will, but it is the teacher or senior student that offers a transmission to the junior- assuming they have the skill in movement and sword arts to be able to do this. The senior (teacher) will use kamae and footwork to move the junior to a place where their movement is incorrect, where they are open to attack, and then an attack is taken, allowing them to feel such openings and be able to eliminate them over time. Likewise the teacher (senior) as they move creates openings (tsuki) and mistakes in kamae to see if the junior can *see* it, if they can *feel* it and take it.

Done correctly, this will lead the junior to regularly hitting the teacher- which is correct!

The teacher creates a moment in time-movement so they can experience it- catch the feeling of it.

As the student progresses these openings in kamae, movement, and sword position become smaller and smaller, forcing the student to be able to feel for the opening more and more.

A final layer would be kyojitsu- what is true and false, with the teacher creating an opening, offering an opening for the student, but it is not a real opening, it is a trap- are they able to see (feel) past the trap?

Often for the last 30 minutes or so of class, when we have open sparring, all of the students will participate in  either the first or second drill, as I make my way around with each student practicing the third drill for a few moments.

Sparing as going back and forth, or sparring as a chance to experience a feeling of transmission?


The drills presented here are for academic discussion only and interest in the subject matter as opinion only, with no warranty or accuracy implied . Martial arts practice should only be carried out under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor. Before undertaking any martial arts or physical activity please consult a medical professional in regard to activity level and fitness. Always practice with safe training equipment and the correct martial arts equipment.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join our events and meetup mailing list and get event updates sent directly to your inbox.

* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp

The aim of the Bujinkan Shinmyoken Dojo (school of the life giving sword) is to understand nature and the movement of being zero through taijutsu- martial ways of using the body. The school exists to create and transmit this feeling and method through the experience of isshi soden.

Located in Westchester New York, the Bujinkan Shinmyoken Dojo is a martial arts training group founded in 2005 with the aim of coming together as martial arts friends to study the Japanese martial arts of Masaaki Hatsumi through the movement lessons of the Bujinkan Dojo.

Training is supervised by Fred Feddeck who has been studying Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu since 1993.

Classes are held on Saturday Mornings from 9-11 AM at a local park in Yonkers New York easily accessible by car, train, and bus. Additional training times are held for workshops and seminars each quarter.

Questions, feedback, and inquiries may be directed to the group here:

Those interested in finding more about our training are invited to join our meetup and event mailing list below.

This mailing list is used to provide updates regarding upcoming seminars and workshops, along with meeting times for our once a month martial arts meetup to discuss and explore various topics in our training.

Join our events and meetup mailing list and get event updates sent directly to your inbox.

* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp

 email contact: